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The Prayer That Saved a President

The Prayer That Saved a President

March 4, 1881

Oh, turn to me, and have mercy on me! Give Your strength to Your servant, And save the son of Your maidservant. — Psalm 86:16

When Abraham and Eliza Garfield married, they built a log cabin in Mentor, Ohio, and that’s where James Abram was born in 1831. Two years later, Abraham, thirty-three, died while fighting a fire that threatened their farm. Eliza, a devout follower of Christ, determined to raise her children with prayer as her secret weapon.

When James was a teenager, he left home to work on the Ohio and Pennsylvania Canal. It was a dangerous job, and he could barely swim. One dark night, he woke for his shift and made his way to the deck. While struggling with a coil of rope, he fell headfirst over the railing and sank in the cold waters. As he thrashed about, his hand felt a loose rope. It was taut enough to support him, and he hauled himself to the railing and collapsed onto the deck.

I felt I was coming to drowning. At length, however, [the rope] held and I was able to draw myself up until I could get a breath of air above the stagnant, stifling water… My feeble calls for help [received] no response from the sleeping people in the boat. I was curious to know what had caused the rope to stop unwinding and carefully examining it, I found that just where it came over the edge of the boat it had been drawn into a crack and there knotted itself. I sat down in the cold of the night and in my wet clothes and [thought about] the matter. I thought [God] had saved me… for something greater and better than canaling.1

James had swallowed a large quantity of water and was chilled to the bone. He developed a high fever as he trudged toward home. Reaching the little house, he saw a light, and through the window there was his mother on her knees, an open Bible before her, praying, “Oh, turn to me, and have mercy upon me; give strength to Thy servant, and save the son of Thy handmaid.” James knew this was the prayer his mother offered for him daily.2

In Psalm 86, King David was in a crisis, and he begged the Lord to have mercy on him, to help him, to show him strength, to help him for he was the son of a godly mother. The New International Version says,

Turn to me and have mercy on me; show Your strength in behalf of Your servant; save me, because I serve You just as my mother did.

It is one of the very few biblical references to David’s mother. In the older translations, the verse simply said, “Save the son of Your maidservant,” and Eliza made that her prayer.

Hearing those words, James opened the door and fell into her arms.

Eliza nursed her son to health, and shortly afterward, he attended a revival meeting. Listening carefully to the sermons, he told the preacher, “If I could be satisfied that what you have taught tonight is simple truth and would secure happiness, I would embrace the faith.”3 The next night, James gave his life to Christ and soon began preaching the gospel.4

His friends were impacted by his faith. One evening as he and his buddies were celebrating the Fourth of July around a campfire, he pulled a copy of the New Testament from his pocket and said, “Boys, I am accustomed to read a chapter with my absent mother every night. Shall I read it aloud?” They agreed, and he read the chapter his mother was reading in her cabin at the same time.5

In one of his letters, Garfield described a revival in which he preached the gospel nineteen times, with thirty-four people coming to Christ and thirty-one of them being baptized.6

Later while at Williams College, Garfield summarized his philosophy of history for the school magazine: “No man can understand the history of any nation or of the world who does not recognize in it the power of God and behold His stately goings forth as He walks among the nations. It is His hand that is moving the vast superstructure of human history.”7

At age twenty-six, Garfield was appointed president of Hiram College. He began making political speeches denouncing the evils of slavery, and in 1860, he was elected state senator. When the Civil War broke out, Garfield joined the Union Army and rose to the rank of major-general, but he resigned his commission to run for a seat in the US House of Representatives. His political career was meteoric, and in 1880, he was elected president of the United States.

His aged mother, Eliza, traveled with him to Washington where, on March 4, 1881, she became the first mother of a president to see her son sworn into office and the first mother of a president to live in the White House.

And if you visit the bedroom she occupied at the Garfield home in Mentor, Ohio, you’ll see on the wall an old framed embroidery bearing the words “Watch and Pray.”

  1. See Stephen G. Yanoff, The Second Mourning: The Untold Story of America’s Most Bizarre Political Murder (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2014), 38. Also William M. Thayer, From Log Cabin to the White House (Boston: James H. Earle Publisher, 1881), 208–10; Ruth Tenzer Feldman, James Garfield (Minneapolis: Leaner Publications Company, 2005), 8. Also Candice Millard, Destiny of the Republic (New York: Doubleday, 2011), 21.
  2. William Judson Hampton, Our Presidents and Their Mothers (Boston: Cornhill Publishing Company, 1922), 159.
  3. Benson John Lossing, A Biography of James A. Garfield (New York: Henry S. Goodspeed & Company, 1882), 66.
  4. Lossing, James A. Garfield, 75.
  5. Lossing, James A. Garfield, 94.
  6. David Barton, A Spiritual Heritage (Aledo, TX: WallBuilders, 2000), 36. Barton attributes this to a personal letter from Garfield, which is in his possession.
  7. Lossing, A Biography of James A. Garfield, 83.

Excerpted with permission from 100 Bible Verses That Made America by Robert J. Morgan, copyright Robert J. Morgan.

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Your Turn

Prayer is powerful! Praying for our children is powerful! Take this verse as Eliza did and remember it with the Lord for your kids. Come and share your thoughts with us. We want to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily